THOUSANDS of brightly painted flowers and two rainbows adorn the 14th July Bridge, which spans the Tigris River running through the center of this ancient city.
At first glance, the explosion of color in an otherwise tawdry city of about 4 million people appears to be a spontaneous outburst of joy amid the pall of gloom that hangs over Baghdad.
But on closer inspection, the flowers are regimentally uniform and appear to be standing in symmetrical attention - painted by construction workers who were supervised by soldiers of the pervasive Iraqi security.
The bridge was put back into use in April, after having been closed for repairs ever since it was bombed by the United States during the 1992 Gulf war.
The event was widely reported in the state-controlled media to boost the morale of ordinary Iraqis bearing the brunt of international sanctions - rampant inflation, crime, social decay, and food shortages.
But four years after the imposition of a United Nations trade embargo on everything except humanitarian aid and medicine, Iraq is a shadow of the prosperous nation it once was. Iraq has the world's second-largest oil deposits after Saudi Arabia.
Iraq has met most of the UN's requirements for lifting the sanctions - including disarmament relating to nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons.
But it is refusing to account for about 17 tons of biological material until its compliance in the other fields has been acknowledged.
UN weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus said in his follow-up report to the Security Council June 20 that he had detailed evidence from "foreign sources" that Iraq had acquired new components - over and above the 17 tons of material that could be used for germ warfare - which could be used to develop a biological-warfare program.
President Saddam Hussein has passed on the costs of sanctions to the Iraqi public, but his personal power - and that of his regime - appears firmly entrenched.
Beneath the bustle of city life, the embargo is exacting a terrible toll. Four-digit inflation has put basic goods beyond the reach of most Iraqis and has had a devastating impact on the urban poor, who account for about 3 million of Iraq's 20 million.
Before the Gulf war, $1 bought just over three Iraqi dinars. Today, a dollar buys around 700 dinars at a bank and more than 1,100 dinars on the flourishing black market. The cheapest food, the Iraqi equivalent of pita bread, has increased 2,500 times since the war. Two pounds of powdered milk costs around 1,500 dinars - about one-third of the monthly salary of a government employee.
"It's a human tragedy," says Margaret Hassan, Baghdad director of Care International, which feeds children in about 20 hospitals across the country. "The sanctions are hitting the most vulnerable in the society ... the deprived and the children. Most schools don't have desks and books, and the children do not get food in the mornings...."
Government food rations, which provided most Iraqis with staples, were recently reduced by one-third. The result has been disastrous.
"There is definitely a drop in the growth-rate of children and an increase in malnutrition since sanctions were imposed in 1991," says Cenan Antowan, a doctor who studies the effects of sanctions on children's health.
During a government-sponsored tour of his hospital, Dr. Antowan told the Monitor that malnutrition-related diseases were a relatively new phenomenon in Iraq. "When we were students 12 years ago, it was very rare to see a case of [malnutrition-related diseases]," he says. "Now it is a regular outpatient disease."
Antowan says that the problem of malnourishment has worsened since the government reduced its food rations last October and totally cut milk powder and infants' formula.
In the northern city of Erbil, one UN aid worker says he saw people partially dismantling their homes to sell the bricks to buy food. "It is the first time in my life I have seen anything like this," says Lucielo Ramirez, director of the UN World Food Programme in Iraq.
The WFP is providing food for about 550,000 destitute, hospitalized, and displaced. But Mr. Ramirez says that food stocks have run dangerously low, and donor fatigue has set in.
INTERNATIONAL aid workers, involved in feeding children in hospitals and providing sanitation and clean drinking water, warn that a combination of donor fatigue and an Iraqi government unable to meet the food needs of its population, could result in an African-style famine.
"The situation in the center and south of the country is close to an emergency and getting worse," says Brian Doolan, an Amman-based official who oversees the Iraq operation for CARE International.
"Applying sanctions to Iraq is more like slapping an embargo on Britain than on an African country. Iraq was once a proud and prosperous nation with an excellent infrastructure, and it takes a time to deplete resources," Mr. Doolan says.
"If there are any further cuts in the government food rations - and this is quite possible - we will very quickly see an emergency ...," Doolan says. "Everywhere there is a lack of water. Existing water supplies are polluted, and the capacity to remove dirty water is limited. Most water and sanitation facilities are working at 40 percent of capacity."
Doolan says that the current impact of sanctions is being felt mainly by Iraq's children. "From a humanitarian point of view, we are creating long-term problems of malnourishment and stunted education by penalizing the children of Iraq now," he says.
The impact of sanctions on the Iraqi middle-class is less life-threatening but no less tragic. Unable to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed before the Gulf war, people have taken to selling their household possessions to buy food and basic goods.
Many families have sold furniture, carpets, family heirlooms, and wedding dowries, including cutlery, silverware, and jewelry.
While the country experiences a dire shortage of foreign currency and the government has harsh restrictions on construction and imports, Saddam shows no signs of changing his palace-hopping lifestyle.
The lavish habits of the ruling class are generally kept beyond the view of ordinary people, and a sophisticated propaganda machine is always quick to correct any breaches of the official "truth."
The tightly controlled media reflects only the message that the regime wants out. And a security and informer network maintain control through tyranny and fear.
The Washington-based Human Rights Watch reported in early June that Iraq is making extensive use of amputations to deal with robbers, military deserters, and other offenders.
But there are periodic chinks in the monolithic image that Saddam presents.
In the past few weeks, travelers reaching Amman, Jordan, have carried out details of two uprisings in the Anbar province west of Baghdad.
According to the accounts, irate mobs converged on the governor's palace, destroyed government buildings, and killed officials of the ruling Baath Party. Another attack was made soon after on a communications tower outside Baghdad.
Western diplomats said that the uprisings, although crushed by the military, have shaken Saddam because the rebelling group of Sunni Muslims had been considered loyal to Saddam and his Baath Party.
Those who can no longer live with the harsh realities - and have the means to do so - have left. Since the Gulf war, between 1 million and 2 million Iraqis have traveled to Jordan in the hopes of getting visas to countries such as Canada or New Zealand, which are quick to gobble up the trained engineers, doctors, and other professionals.
"Social values have broken down. One is no longer safe in one's own home," laments an Iraqi engineer in Amman, referring to the rise in crime. He is also waiting to emigrate to Canada.
"Saddam is responsible for the disintegration of society," says the engineer, who requests anonymity because he fears for the safety of his family still in Baghdad. "He started it all by trying to steal Kuwait. This is how he taught the people to steal."
"It is a tragic situation," says Mousa Adeli, a Jordanian Roman Cath- olic priest who helps run a center in Amman for Iraqis waiting to depart. "The country is losing all its best people. Morale is at an all-time low."
The imponderable question in Iraq is whether the country would be any better without Saddam. Some analysts believe that if he were suddenly removed, the country could fragment - first with a breakaway in the already autonomous Kurdish north and later an Iranian-inspired breakaway by the Shiites in the south.
A European diplomat in Baghdad believes that it is time the embargo is lifted and Iraq brought back into the international fold.
Others believe it is too late.
"It could rapidly develop into another Lebanon or Bosnia," says the engineer waiting in Amman.